war lessons covid-19 coronavirus pandemic The war with the virus is testing our learned lessons and bringing new tactics to light.
Image via Desirée Tapias and Shutterstock

The virus offensive caught us off guard, but it brought back lessons we need to remember in case of another pandemic.

The sarcophagus-sounding SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is as much our enemy as it is our ally. In a matter of days, an invisible packet of biochemicals devoid of a metabolic system taught us what other looming hazards will do to our existence if left unattended. 

The climate crisis is the biggest threat. Like the pandemic, it is exponential. We can be tricked into thinking it isn’t because the timescale at which our planet warms up, and our perception of the consequences, is measured and felt in years, not days. 

The SARS-CoV-2 offensive on humankind warped our perception of speed, scale and severity. It caught us off guard, but so long as we learn the lesson, it forced upon us exactly the kind of historical consciousness we need to fight larger wars.   

The Enemy Preys On the Disconnect Between Human Logic and Psychology

The virus preys as much on the permeable membrane of the cells in our lungs as it does on the disconnect between human logic and psychology. Once it takes hold of a community, infections double every two to five days. Still, it took a while for us to recognize the true size and war tactics of our microscopic enemy. 

In five months, the reported number of cases — or the tip of the iceberg — grew from 1, somewhere, to more than 2 million, everywhere. Not gradually. Suddenly! In New York City, the first case was confirmed on 1 March. Today, there are over 200,000 cases

Were we aware that a jump from 1 case to 2 cases in 72 hours equals a pandemic in four weeks the virus might have been contained (logic). Instead, people chose to underestimate the signal and allowed the enemy to bring our world to its knees (psychology). 

We Are Only As Strong As Our Weakest System

A third thing we know is our enemy is practically ubiquitous. It is why the U.N. Secretary-General insists we are only as strong as our weakest health system. In the industrialized world, for all the shortages, the pandemic unfolds at a speed fast enough to barely deal with it. 

But think about places like South Sudan, where there are just 24 ICU beds and four ventilators. Or Syria, where hospitals are attacked routinely: there are only 133 ICU beds and 41 ventilators. Or the Central African Republic, where there are only three ventilators for the entire population. Or Yemen, where only half of the hospitals work, and two-thirds of the population have no access to healthcare. Or Venezuela, where most doctors have fled the country, 9 out of 10 hospitals face shortages of medicines and supplies, and there are only 84 ICU beds left nationwide.

It is not only dangerous to ignore a serious problem; it is also dangerous to believe a problem is less serious because –we think- it is happening elsewhere.  

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A Battle Always Changes the Moment You Get Ahead of the Enemy  

The facts we know about our enemy are useful, but that is hardly the same as saying we know all the useful facts. It began in China. Everyone is susceptible. Pre-symptomatic people can shed the virus. Many never develop symptoms. The virus hides, kills some, spares others. It is not completely random in its moves, but random enough to elude our defense. 

SARS-CoV-2 does not discriminate among its victims, but the damage it causes is largely a function of the shape and structure of society. The more financially stable you are, the easier it is to hide from it — i.e., practice social distance. The more hospital beds, doctors and nurses, and ICUs per 100,000 people in a country, the less likely an infected person will die, not of the virus, but of the lack of a health system’s capacity to treat all who need care. 

Mostly everything else about SARS-CoV-2 remains unknown. But we can —and should try to — make very good guesses using predictive models about where and how fast it will spread, who will get sick and how sick, how many will die and why. A battle always changes the moment you get ahead of the enemy.  

Societies Can Mobilize Unprecedented Solidarity

Watching the resilience of households and sheer grit and heroism of those at the front lines of this pandemic, waging war with the weapons they have — if not the ones we need-, is an admirable reminder of what humans are capable: Societies are mobilizing unprecedented solidarity. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, policemen, firemen, pharmacists, grocers, all risking their lives to protect ours. 

Neighbors checking in on each other, consolidating online food orders. Businesses filling manufacturing gaps as fast as they can in the horrific scramble for PPE and ventilators. Armies standing up makeshift hospitals. People cheering every evening to thank our health workers. Flags at half-staff. And minutes of silence piling up on top of the silent hours of the day. Countries passing new laws and unprecedented economic relief packages. Scientists trialing anti-virals, biotherapies, and vaccines in record times. Innovators sharing solutions rather than guarding intellectual property. Thinkers, artists, children co-creating the post-COVID-19 world, not wondering how a return to normalcy is possible but whether it is warranted. 

The Extraordinary Pain of Losing Lives and Livelihoods Should Never Be in Vain 

Sure enough, the pandemic exposes profound tensions and contradictions that pull strings out of our social fabric and shared humanity every day. 

But if indeed we are at the dawn of a new era, the lockdown rather than drive us into moral hypoxia should prepare us for collective action to fix what needs fixing in our political systems and economic models; rethink the role of the state and the nature of work; perfect the benefits of a highly interconnected world; stand up against sectarian, isolationist, and narcistic ideologies; overcome gender, racial, religious and income divides; recalibrate the imbalances between individual liberties and collective interests; exercise solidarity towards disenfranchised and vulnerable communities; demand the political will to end and prevent violent conflict and war; revisit premises in our justice systems to end cruel forms of criminal punishment, and stop and reverse the rampant destruction of our planet.  

We know life does go on. But it can’t be in vain that we endure the extraordinary pain of losing lives and livelihoods. If we sow our better selves in the struggles of isolation, we will harvest unity and shared humanity in our survival. 

This is not a moment to bet against us or each other. To focus on the comforts of problem description. To throw roses or tomatoes to the actors on the stage. Instead, it’s a chance to seize the moment and take part in the effort ahead. It begins by stopping the pre-COVID-19 gambling with the future and postponement of the hard and urgent tasks of building a better world. 

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